Help for the Helper
author: Marlena Thompson.
At age eighteen, I left my home in Brooklyn, New York, and went off to study history at Leeds University in Yorkshire, England. It was an exciting but stressful
time in my life, for while trying to adjust to the novelty of unfamiliar surroundings, I was still learning to cope with the all-too- familiar pain of
my father’s recent death — an event with which I had not yet come to terms.
While at the market one day, trying to decide which bunch of flowers would best brighten up my comfortable but colorless student digs, I spied an elderly
gentleman having difficulty holding onto his walking stick and his bag of apples. I rushed over and relieved him of the apples, giving him time to regain
“Thanks, luv,” he said in that distinctive Yorkshire lilt I never tire of hearing. “I’m quite all right now, not to worry,” he said, smiling at me not only
with his mouth but with a pair of dancing bright blue eyes.
“May I walk with you?” I inquired. “Just to make sure those apples don’t become sauce prematurely.”
He laughed and said, “Now, you are a long way from home, lass. From the States, are you?”
“Only from one of them. New York. I’ll tell you all about it as we walk.”
So began my friendship with Mr. Burns, a man whose smile and warmth would very soon come to mean a great deal to me.
As we walked, Mr. Burns (whom I always addressed as such and never by his first name) leaned heavily on his stick, a stout, gnarled affair that resembled
my notion of a biblical staff. When we arrived at his house, I helped him set his parcels on the table and insisted on lending a hand with the preparations
for his “tea” — that is, his meal. I interpreted his weak protest as gratitude for the assistance.
After making his tea, I asked if it would be all right if I came back and visited with him again. I thought I’d look in on him from time to time, to see
if he needed anything. With a wink and a smile he replied, “I’ve never been one to turn down an offer from a good-hearted lass.”
I came back the next day, at about the same time, so I could help out once more with his evening meal. The great walking stick was a silent reminder of
his infirmity, and, though he never asked for help, he didn’t protest when it was given. That very evening we had our first “heart to heart.” Mr. Burns
asked about my studies, my plans, and, mostly, about my family. I told him that my father had recently died, but I didn’t offer much else about the relationship
I’d had with him. In response, he gestured toward the two framed photographs on the end table next to his chair. They were pictures of two different women,
one notably older than the other. But the resemblance between the two was striking.
“That’s Mary,” he said, indicating the photograph of the older woman. “She’s been gone for six years. And that’s our Alice. She was a very fine nurse. Losing
her was too much for my Mary.”
I responded with the tears I hadn’t been able to shed for my own pain. I cried for Mary. I cried for Alice. I cried for Mr. Burns. And I cried for my father
to whom I never had the chance to say good-bye.
I visited with Mr. Burns twice a week, always on the same days and at the same time. Whenever I came, he was seated in his chair, his walking stick propped
up against the wall. Mr. Burns owned a small black-and-white television set, but he evidently preferred his books and phonograph records for entertainment.
He always seemed especially glad to see me. Although I told myself I was delighted to be useful, I was happier still to have met someone to whom I could
reveal those thoughts and feelings that, until then, I’d hardly acknowledged to myself.
While fixing the tea, our chats would begin. I told Mr. Burns how terribly guilty I felt about not having been on speaking terms with my father the two
weeks prior to his death. I’d never had the chance to ask my father’s forgiveness. And he had never had the chance to ask for mine.
Although Mr. Burns talked, he allowed me the lion’s share. Mostly I recall him listening. But how he listened! It wasn’t just that he was attentive to what
I said. It was as if he were reading me, absorbing all the information I provided, and adding details from his own experience and imagination to create
a truer understanding of my words.
After about a month, I decided to pay my friend a visit on an “off day.” I didn’t bother to telephone as that type of formality did not seem requisite in
our relationship. Coming up to the house, I saw him working in his garden, bending with ease and getting up with equal facility. I was dumbfounded. Could
this be the same man who used that massive walking stick?
He suddenly looked in my direction. Evidently sensing my puzzlement over his mobility, he waved me over, looking more than a bit sheepish. I said nothing,
but accepted his invitation to come inside.
“Well, luv. Allow me to make you a ‘cuppa’ this time. You look all done in.”
“How?” I began. “I thought…”
“I know what you thought, luv. When you first saw me at the market…well, I’d twisted my ankle a bit earlier in the day. Tripped on a stone while doing
a bit of gardening. Always been a clumsy fool.”
“But…when were you able to…walk normally again?”
Somehow, his eyes managed to look merry and contrite at the same time. “Ah, well, I guess that’ll be the very next day after our first meeting.”
“But why?” I asked, truly perplexed. Surely he couldn’t have been feigning helplessness to get me to make him his tea every now and then.
“That second time you came ’round, luv, it was then I saw how unhappy you were. Feeling lonely and sad about your dad and all. I thought, well, the lass
could use a bit of an old shoulder to lean on. But I knew you were telling yourself you were visiting me for my sake and not your own. Didn’t think you’d
come back if you knew I was fit. And I knew you were in sore need of someone to talk to. Someone older, older than your dad, even. And someone who knew
how to listen.”
“And the stick?”
“Ah. A fine stick, that. I use it when I walk the moors. We must do that together soon.”
So we did. And Mr. Burns, the man I’d set out to help, helped me. He’d made a gift of his time, bestowing attention and kindness to a young girl who needed